Mentoring ““ An Essential Leadership Skill

Chief Dan Jones

Chief Dan Jones

Chief Dan Jones – Early in my Fire Service career I was taken under the wing of a couple of older and more experienced firefighters who spent lots of time with me, sharing stories, talking about fire department careers and reinforcing lessons about how best to do the job and succeed. I remember sitting in front of my first fire station in wooden folding chairs after dinner and soaking up all they would share with me like a sponge. Little did I know then that I was being mentored. In fact, many of the principles that I learned from Fire Engineer “Ed” in those early days would serve me well all the way through being a fire chief. Why was that so helpful?

Mentoring used to be more commonly practiced than it is today and that is a loss to the Fire Service at large. The value of those “early lessons” far exceeded what I learned in my rookie academy, my community college courses or my certification classes. Those mentoring sessions filled in the blanks between formal education, sponsored training and my own experiences. It taught me the valuable lessons of things like how to apply what I learned in formal training, what works in different situations, how to be part of the team and fit in, what makes one a valued member of the team. Ed also took the time to give me individual critique sessions on runs we went to, how I did tasks around the station and how I interacted with other crewmembers and the captain. All of those things I would probably have learned eventually on my own or through trial and error but his mentoring shorted my learning curve significantly and helped me achieve early and long-term success.

Several years into my career I was promoted to Lieutenant and Ed was assigned as my driver/operator. His mentoring continued even though I was the crew leader but he did it in a way that was hidden from the other crewmembers so as to not infringe upon my authority of responsibility. As my career developed I acquired other mentors both within my own department and outside. In some cases the mentors were more senior officers with a lot more experience but in other cases mentoring was a mutual shared experience with other fire officers and instructors that could be considered peers but actually mentored each other. So much for the stereotype that a mentor is an older, wiser, more experienced person. And the really cool part of all of this was that many of these mentors continued to be a support system and trusted advisors throughout my career. Looking back I owe most of the success I achieved directly to that mentor group that taught, guided and supported me.

Kelly Walsh

Kelly Walsh

Coach Kelly Walsh – Unlike Dan, when I look back, I realize that I didn’t have the benefit of formal or informal mentoring in my early career. I worked in New York City in my first HR job. People were smart and in many cases “connected” via their school alumni or family connections. I didn’t have the connections so I had to compete a different way. I sought out mentoring by showing up and showing interest. I made sure I was the first one in the office and the last one to leave. When I was outgrowing a role, I would find the busiest person and offer to help them. This often meant staying late into the night but I knew this would give me one on one time with the right people who could help me create my next step. They in turn, gave me visibility for helping them and the chance to try out different areas to see what I liked. I used this form of seeking mentors and networking throughout my career.

Buddy is my new rescue dog at home. Sometimes he comes over to me and maneuvers his head under my hand so I’ll give him attention. In a strange way I guess that is how I gathered my mentors over the years. I asked for the attention and offered hard work, quick thinking, and loyalty in exchange. It was a form of self-volunteering rather than waiting to get noticed. For me, the results ended up the same. I had a group of trusted advisors that I went to when needed and many are still part of my life and my career as it continues to grow.

CDJ – Mentoring relationships must be initiated through a trusting, respectful relationship when the “mentor” is genuinely interested in the success and learning of the “mentee”. Developing and supporting those under you and around you is an essential leadership skill. Much too often those with greater skills, more experience, higher positions keep those lessons to themselves in a vain effort to preserve their own “power position”. This is disastrous for someone in a leader position because it limits those under and around you, which ultimately limits the leader. All of us have heard the old adage; “a leader is only as good as the people under him/her”.

Mentoring is not favoritism. Mentoring is not paving the way for someone. Mentoring is not opening doors for another person. Someone told me a long time ago that mentoring is “guided discovery” where you let the person do the work but you help them read the map. In that way you allow them to make their own accomplishments. Favoritism is sharing information exclusively with someone and excluding others instead of sharing what you have learned with all who earnestly seek it from you. Mentoring is not paving the way but teaching another how to operate the paving machine. Mentoring is not opening doors but helping someone to know upon which door to knock. And finally mentoring is partnering with someone when they face tough uphills or challenges so they do not feel alone. It is a positive relationship and part of mentoring is being a cheerleader.

How Mentoring is Successful

CKW – The most successful mentor/mentee relationships have two things; meaningful conversations and active learning. The meaningful conversations may happen formally or informally, but are definitely two-way interactions. The mentor should listen to what the mentee wants to learn, what situation he or she is in, and what solutions they have thought of before guiding them. This should be more than a lecture style relationship. Further, there should be active learning so that the mentee has tangible experiences. The mentor may give an assignment to help the mentee work through a problem and the mentee may report back whether or not it was successful. Other ways these relationships are successful are to have:
“¢ Planned sessions (if you just hope they happen ““ they may not)
“¢ Holistic Experience (conversations including speaking and listening over an extended time frame with active learning assignments)
“¢ Realistic Expectations (each scenario may not be the same or perfect. There will be variables)

Common Pitfalls of Mentoring

There are a few pitfalls to avoid when in a mentoring relationship:
“¢ Too many goals ““ occasionally a mentee will bring a list of 10 things they want to accomplish in the next year. The mentor can try to help bring that list to a more manageable size so there will be visible success.
“¢ Time ““ making sure the mentor truly has time to dedicate to this process. Sometimes good mentors are in demand and numerous people want their time. Make sure if they aren’t someone you see on your shift, that you can get dedicated time with them.
“¢ Realize the mentee drives the meeting schedule. Make clear with the mentee that he/she is responsible for scheduling mentoring meetings so there is no confusion or hard feelings.
“¢ Mentors and mentees are different ““ One mentor may have a more aggressive style and suggest the same to the mentee. If it is not their style, it will not work for him/her. Discuss how they might be most able to accomplish the goal in a way that is likely to work for him/her.
CDJ ““ Earlier in this article, I made the statement that “Mentoring used to be more commonly practiced than it is today”. So why is that? There are probably many reasons and a few that I think influenced that include; increased formal training development that left less time for informal mentoring, increased diversity of the Fire Service which made close mentoring relationships awkward for some people of different cultures/races/genders, a move away from seniority as a primary consideration in promotions and a more individualistic and competitive nature to our overall society. Increased education levels of entry level firefighters may have also impacted opportunities for mentoring as older more experienced firefighters felt threatened by the better educated rookies. There are just more demands of our time in general so this is something that falls by the way side. None of these are legitimate reasons not to continue to need, develop and benefit from mentoring relationships. In fact all of those issues make the need for mentoring greater than ever for the overall success of the Fire Service.

Failure to provide mentoring limits the potential of those who will eventually succeed us. Failure to provide mentoring can also create resentment and distrust among those whom we hope to lead. No one enters the Fire Service with a goal or expectation of getting wealthy. Nearly everyone in this business is in it for the personal sense of accomplishment, personal satisfaction, sense of being part of a team and giving of service to others. Well I can tell you, there is no greater satisfaction than watching someone you taught or mentored being successful. And, since many of us in the Fire Service believe in the concept of “paying it forward” and all of us have benefitted in our careers from someone else, mentoring is the very best way to do just that. Most of the folks who mentored me are in a place or position that I could never repay them but I can certainly pay it forward. And I have tried to do just that!

How do you get a mentor in the Fire Service?

CKW ““ I have worked in organizations that have formal mentor programs. People apply to be mentored and we match them up and train each to do their part. In my time working in the Fire Service, it tends to happen more organically than that. Some people have a tendency toward being a mentor and others have the ability to ask for it.

If you want a mentor, but don’t have one, how do you make it happen? First, think about what you would like to accomplish in both the long and short term. Next, find someone you admire who has been successful in a way you would like to be. Then, ask that person if they would be interested in mentoring you. Finally, set some parameters such as frequency of meetings. You could suggest a 6 month trial period so if it isn’t working out, it will be less awkward end. What’s important is that you don’t wait for a mentor to find you. It may happen and that would be great, but if it doesn’t, use your initiative and look for one.

Peter Drucker is a renowned management and leadership researcher, author and professor. This came from his teachings;

9 functions of a mentor:

1 “Define the landscape.” Focus on details to get things done ““ see the landscape to plot a course. Mentors are fresh eyes.
2 “Expose “˜white space’ ““ define opportunities ““ what is needed now.” Passion disconnected from meeting needs is wasted. Sincerity is not enough.
3 “Clarify strengths and capacities.” Tapping untapped strengths represents new directions, deeper fulfillment, and greater fruitfulness.
4 “Identify incorrect assumptions.” Listen for limiting beliefs.
5 “Encouragement to “˜go for it.'” Great mentors inspire action. Dreaming big is only a beginning. Dreams without action drain vitality and affirm helplessness.
6 “Help sort out the right strategies.” Mentors bring strategic thinking to your personal strengths and individual passions.
7 “Affirm results.” Success creates focus, fuels motivation, and confirms direction.
8 “Point out wasted effort.” Stopping is harder than starting. One the most challenging lessons in leadership is learning that trying harder doesn’t work, if you’re stuck. Mentors point out spinning wheels and flying mud.
9 Establish “gentle accountability.” Accountability in mentoring relationships is an agreement. It’s not imposed by dictatorial mentors.

(The 9 functions of a mentor are adapted from, Drucker & Me, by Bob Buford. Drucker did not list these 9 functions. They emerged in the mentoring relationship.)

CDJ – When a leader approaches the end of their career in emergency services the accomplishments that will mean the most to them is not the rank they achieved, the education degree they earned, the programs they developed or the awards they earned. What will mean the most is the people you helped along the way and not just the people you helped, saved, rescued or whatever on emergency calls. It will also be the people you mentored or taught and what they achieved. Legacy lives through the people you taught, mentored, befriended, worked beside and influenced. When you mentor you give parts of yourself away and when you do that, you receive much in return. If you make a point to mentor others, your chances of being a successful leader are high.

“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but rather giving them the opportunity to create themselves”. – Steven Spielberg